History of Hymns: “Jesus, the Light of the World”

by Jan McNair

Jesus, the Light of the World
by George Elderkin/Charles Wesley;
The Africana Hymnal, No. 4038.

Hark! the Herald angels sing,
Jesus, the Light of the world;
Glory to the newborn King,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

(Refrain)
We’ll walk in the light, beautiful light,
Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright,
Shine all around us by day and by night,
Jesus, the Light of the world.

“Jesus, the Light of the World” was first published in a collection edited by George D. Elderkin, titled The Finest of the Wheat No. 1: Hymns New and Old for Missionary and Revival Meetings, and Sabbath-Schools (#35). The song incorporates portions of Charles Wesley’s hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” coupled with a song titled “Jesus, the Light of the World.” It is not clear if Elderkin composed the music. Carl Daw, in Glory to God: a Companion, surmises that Elderkin’s song may have come from an oral tradition of songs that used similar tunes, but changing stanzas. He identifies nine songs that use a melody, response, and refrain similar to Elderkin’s “Hark, the Herald” setting but each with different stanzas. This tune was apparently well known. The first and third lines of the stanzas were unique to each setting, with lines 2 and 4 consistently the response, “Jesus the Light of the World.” The refrain, melodically and rhythmically similar in each, was the oft used “Walk in the Light” tune. In the first edition, Elderkin includes “arr.” by his initials in the credit line for both text and tune. It is interesting to note that he copyrighted this song, perhaps as a way of protecting his juxtaposition of Wesley’s words and the “Walk in the Light” refrain.

Jesus the Light of the World hymn


The songs Daw mentions (see below*) came from songbooks dating 1890-1910, suggesting that this practice may have developed in the time of camp meetings. Without the availability of songbooks, the assembled would need music that was familiar or easy to teach, yet adaptable to the event. The stanzas may have been improvised by the song leader in the moment. In light of this premise, it would make sense that people were likely well acquainted with Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” making it easy to couple with another familiar tune - “Walk in the Light.”

The nine published versions are metered in 6/8, but contemporary editions often publish the song in 6/4. Most versions are in the key of F, but can be found in Eb. The Accompaniment Editions of both The Africana Hymnal and Zion Still Sings include a gospel piano accompaniment by Evelyn Simpson-Curenton. Choristers Guild has recently released a choral arrangement by André Thomas, titled “Walk in the Light,” composed in an even more complex gospel style.

Worship & Song, No. 3056, includes a text by Ken Bible for this hymn. It is included in the “Birth and Baptism” section of the book, but would be appropriate for worship services throughout the year.

See the Bright and Morning Star,
Jesus, the Light of the World!
He has risen in our hearts,
Jesus, the Light of the World!

JESUS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
Text:  Ken Bible / Music:  George Elderkin/Charles Wesley
© 1998 LNWhymns.com (admin. by Music Services)
All Rights Reserved.  Used By Permission.


Sources:

Daw, Carl. Glory to God: A Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.

*Songs include:

“Let my gaze be fixed on thee” (Henry Gilmour- Our Praise in Song, 1893)

“Jesus, Savior, thou who are mine” (Grace Weiser Davis- Favorite Gospel Songs, 1894) “All Ye Saints of Light proclaim” (Mrs. J.V. Coombs – Silver and Gold No.1, 1894) “Angels up in heaven adore” (Elisha A. Hoffman –Peerless Hymns, 1899)

“Hark, the courts of heaven resound” (M. Homer Cummings –Glad Tidings for Sunday

Schools, Revival Meetings, 1899)

“Glory to our God and King” (M.A – Revival Melodies, 1905)

“Glory to our Lord and King” (Anonymous – Choice Gospel Songs, 1906)

“Angels Bright in Heaven Adore” (Elisha A. Hoffman – Popular Hymns No.3, 1910)
 

About this week’s writer

Jan McNair serves as the Director of Worship and Music Ministries at First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology/Meadows School of the Arts, and the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies.

 

 

This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.  For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.

Discipleship Ministries
The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts

 

Categories: History of Hymns

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